Sunday, August 28, 2011

North and South, chapters XVII-XIX

Dear Amber,

It’s funny you should mention Margaret’s differing treatment of the Thorntons and the Higginses, because it’s something I was thinking about too. I think you’ve hit on it—she does see her visits to the Higginses as charity, doing her “Christian duty” by spending time with poor, sick Bessy and her family. At least, that’s how it starts, but Margaret actually grows to care about Bessy and Nicholas and seems  to develop a real friendship with them.

I find it interesting that Gaskell has really made Margaret what I’ve been thinking of as a “transitional character.” Margaret is in a position to visit people in all walks of life without damage to her reputation. Mrs. Thornton likely would not be making calls on the Higgins family — it’s not her place. And Margaret’s cousin Edith would have been horrified at the prospect of visiting a poor factory worker’s home. But Margaret can take tea at the Thorntons’, read the Bible with Bessy Higgins, and attend fine society dinners as she did in London before Edith’s marriage, and as she does later on in the novel. Margaret is truly the “middle class” here.

By the way, I believe you’re right about the constant cycle of calls. With little else for refined and moderately wealthy women to do, visiting and being visited would give the women something to do and prepare for and talk about. Once again, I’m glad I’m a woman of the 21st century. I’m basically a homebody and would hate having to go out visiting all the time!

You mentioned the fickle nature of the Milton factory workers, which makes for a good transition into these next few chapters which deal with the strike. I reread the passage you talked about, with the workers wanting more wages to work in a factory with a fan—but I don’t think the workers are fickle. The reason they oppose the fans is because they’re used to inhaling fluff all day and it fills their stomachs so they’re not as hungry. Those who worked in factories with fans were going home hungry and wanted higher wages as compensation.

As we move into chapter 17, Margaret notices that there are a lot more people out and about and there’s a nervous energy in the air. When she reaches the Higginses, she is told that there is a strike in the works. Margaret, innocent of such things, asks what a strike is, and notes, in her prejudicial way, that such a thing was unlikely to happen in her idealized South (“I think they have too much sense.”). Nicholas is contemptuous of this and says that in the North, when the workers aren’t being treated fairly, they stand up for themselves. He explains that the masters seem to be getting quite prosperous, while the workers are still making the same wage they’d been earning for the past two years. And so the Milton workers are planning to strike to get the masters to share the wealth a bit more.

It seems fair enough, but ironically, ignorant Margaret hits the nail on the head as she suggests that maybe the masters have a good reason for not giving out higher wages and that maybe “the state of trade may be such as not to enable them” to give the workers higher wages.

In fact, in the very next chapter, as Mr. Thornton is discussing the state of affairs with his family, he notes that because of the abundance of American yarn in the market, the British mill owners have to sell at a lower rate — things aren’t as prosperous as the Milton workers seem to think. Mr. Thornton also announces his intention to hire cheap, Irish labor should his workers go through with the strike.

Now, this is why I often find myself feeling out of place in the highly pro-union Mahoning Valley. I tend to see both sides of the issue, much like Margaret in this instance. And it seems to me that when it comes to union contract negotiation, there’s a tendency to ignore the valid points the other side might be making—yes, it would be a hardship to have to start paying more for health insurance when you haven’t paid for it before, but at the same time, if the company doesn’t have the money to continue to pay for it, what are you going to do? You see the same back and forth in politics these days as well—the recent struggle over the budget—and it seems that both sides are too willing to cut off their noses to spite their face rather than give an inch to the person on the other side of the table.

But I’ll get off my soapbox now, and get back to our story. In the midst of the strike preparations, we’re also given accounts of several different sickbeds—Mrs. Hale, who’s much more tolerable in her dying state, I have to say, is far sicker than anyone had realized, and her end is approaching quickly. And I’m somewhat smugly satisfied that the true nature of Mrs. Hale’s condition is kept secret from her husband. Though Margaret says it’s for his own health and peace of mind, it brings to mind his own instance of keeping important information from his spouse.

Meanwhile, Bessy Higgins’ condition is worsening, and when Margaret spends another afternoon with her, she meets the Higginses’ neighbor, John Boucher, who is in a state of panic and despair regarding the upcoming strike — if he is without work due to the strike, his young children will starve to death. However, if he does not go along with the union, he will be shunned and his children will likely starve to death anyway. This is what’s really at stake here, and Nicholas acknowledges Boucher’s difficult position, but he says he’s thought about it from every angle, and the only thing he can do is trust in the union, have faith in the union and hope that Boucher will do the same.

As the visit ends, Margaret is very moved by the scene she has witnessed, and leaves money with Bessy for Boucher and his children, though Bessy assures her that they would not have let the Bouchers starve in any case. “If neighbours doesn’t see after neighbours, I dunno who will,” she tells Margaret.

And now, I’ve gotten long-winded again, so I’ll leave off here. As we’ve seen, both sides have a lot to lose should it come to a strike. I’ll let you take us through the drama that follows!

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth

Friday, August 12, 2011

"North and South," Chapters XI-XVI

Dear Mary Beth,

I completely agree with you that Margaret's biggest flaw is her snobbery. She's a fairly strong character, breaking the news of her father's decision to her mother, handling the travel and housing arrangements for the family's move to Milton, and preparing for Mr. Thornton's visit without complaining of the work. She's certainly stronger than her mother, who reminds me of Mrs. Tulliver. Mrs. Hale likes to bring up her heritage, and the Beresfords seem to have been a prestigious family, worthy of more than what Mr. Hale has provided her with. I don't know that Mrs. Hale actually regrets her choice in a husband, but she sure does like to complain a lot, whether at Helstone or Milton.

I think Margaret's snobbery is hypocritical. As you mentioned, she accuses Mr. Thornton of seeing other people who have not made themselves successful as his enemies, when Margaret sees even people who have made themselves successful (Mr. Thornton) as her "enemies." Being that she won't even give Mr. Thornton a chance, it's very odd to me that she is so eager to befriend the Higginses. The only explanation I can think of is that she sees her visits with them as charity, as the same kind of visits she would have been responsible for paying to the poor and sick of Helstone as the parson's daughter. How very out of place she is in the North!

Chapter 11 gives us the Hales discussing Mr. Thornton after he has left. Mr. Hale fills in the details of Mr. Thornton's background--that his father not only died when John was young, but that he killed himself after getting in debt well over his head. The fact that Mr. Thornton spent years living on nothing just so he could repay his father's debts long after they had been discharged seems to impress Margaret but does not humble her or change her opinion of Mr. Thornton. She describes him as having an "iron nature," which I think is very accurate. At this point, I can't help but compare Mr. Thornton to Tom Tulliver.

Shortly after Thornton's dinner visit, his mother and sister call upon the Hales, which does nothing to improve the relations between the two families. Mrs. Thornton has, of course, been biased against Margaret (unwittingly) by her son, and Mrs. Hale is not the kind of person who will have much in common with a Thornton. Fanny, however, comes off the worst of the four, weak and spoiled, clearly sheltered from the hardship of Mr. Thornton's past. The entire visit is fraught with cattiness and tension, something that still happens today, even though women no longer have to "scheme" for a husband. Why is that?

Margaret continues her friendship with the Higginses, and a conversation she has with Bessy in Chapter 13 really struck me. Bessy explains that when she first became ill, she longed for down time to rest and lie around, but now that she has it, she misses being busy. She also explains how some of the mill owners attempted to install a fan in the mills to help with the dust (too late for poor Bessy), but that the workers demanded more pay. It wasn't clear if Margaret interpreted things the same way as I did, but Bessy makes the workers in Milton sound awfully fickle, as though they don't know what they want or what's best for them and just do and say things without thinking.

Of course, Mrs. Hale is now ill, and we find out in Chapter 16 that she's dying. I can't say I didn't see that coming. Mrs. Hale's illness brings her to finally explain Frederick's circumstances to Margaret (and the reader!), which indicated to me that he will become more important soon.

Margaret and Mr. Hale go to the Thorntons' to return Mrs. Thornton's visit (it seems to me to be an endless cycle of being visited and returning visits). Upon seeing Mr. Thornton's very large house, Margaret can't for the life of her understand why he wouldn't want to live in the country instead of right next to his mill. How she idealizes the South! Later that evening, when Mr. Thornton comes to see Mr. Hale, he and Margaret have a continuation of their earlier argument.

I think Margaret's biggest misconception when it comes to Mr. Thornton is that she thinks that everything he does is in pursuit of money, when in fact she doesn't understand at all how things work in the North. She doesn't seem to understand that unlike the landowners in the South, who are fairly secure in their property and wealth, manufacturers and tradesmen can lose everything very quickly if things take a bad turn. Mr. Thornton is of course concerned with keeping his mill running and profitable, but Margaret cannot see that that is in the best interest of everyone involved. As for the South, I am reminded of Middlemarch, where Dorothea Burke wants the landowners to improve their tenants' dwellings, and of a scene between Mr. Burke and one of his tenants--it is not a pleasant scene, and Mr. Burke almost kicks the tenant out. The South is no better than the North, just different.

Like you, I like the Thorntons--well, Mr. Thornton anyway, and to an extent, his mother. I think that Margaret, at this point, is right in the middle of a major education, and things will get more and more interesting as the strike approaches. I'll be interested to read what you have to say as the storm gathers.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

North and South, Chapters V-X

Dear Amber,

I also have the “North and South” miniseries in my Netflix queue. I’m not quite done with the book yet – it’s my bedtime book, and it always seems to take me a little longer to get through a book that way. However, I’m well-prepared to talk about the next few chapters.

We left off when Mr. Hale has told Margaret about his decision to leave the church, and we pick up with Margaret bracing herself to tell her mother of their impending move. I have to say, I’m not particularly fond of Margaret, but I do admire the way she doesn’t procrastinate when she’s got something disagreeable to do. I’d torment myself for a while, imagining worst-case scenarios and mourning over the impending move, but Margaret gets her job over with as soon as possible, telling her mother the bad news almost as soon as her father leaves the house.

Again, this chapter emphasizes Mr. Hale’s cowardice. In your last letter, you said that Mr. Hale reminded you of Mr. Bennett from “Pride and Prejudice,” but I don’t think Mr. Bennett is cowardly. Lazy and self-indulgent, yes, but I can’t see him avoiding Mrs. Bennett for a whole day and making Elizabeth tell her something disagreeable. I’m reminded of Lizzy’s refusal of Mr. Collins and Mr. Bennett’s defense of her decision. In the same situation, Mr. Hale would have hemmed and hawed and told her that maybe she was being too hasty, and it would make her poor mother happy if she would just accept Mr. Collins’ offer.

Two chapters later, we’ve moved North, and Margaret gets her first glimpse of Milton, gray and smoky with its factories and rows of identical houses, as I imagine it. I can’t help thinking of some of the winter drives I made to Youngstown when we were still in school – those leaden skies and abandoned mills. Though it wasn’t all that long ago that Youngstown and Warren would’ve been our equivalent to Milton, with booming industry and crowded suburbs.

Margaret and the reader also meet Mr. Thornton for the first time in this chapter. Margaret doesn’t make the best first impression on Mr. Thornton, and frankly, this is where she really started to irritate me, too. As I mentioned before, in the first few chapters, Margaret comes across as too perfect. In this chapter we see her major flaw – she’s a huge snob. Though her father’s decision to leave the church has left her in far more reduced circumstances than she’s used to, she considers herself superior to Mr. Thornton, a self-made man, a wealthy man … but a tradesman! Now, I’ve been in Margaret’s situation, when you’re tired and not in the mood for company but have to be polite to someone who’s dropped by, but Margaret later reveals that Mr. Thornton’s impression that she looked down on him was entirely accurate.

The female Hales have a hard time settling down in Milton. Mrs. Hale finds that the “bad air” of Helstone is vastly preferable to the smoky air of Milton. And Margaret is put off by the attitude of over-familiarity that the factory workers of Milton seemed to have. However, this freedom of speech and familiarity is what introduces her to Nicholas and Bessy Higgins. Nicholas Higgins comments on her pretty face, and she’s struck by his own careworn face and later, by his clearly ill daughter Bessy. Interestingly, Margaret is friendlier to the Higginses than she is to Mr. Thornton — perhaps it’s because the Higginses “know their place” and recognize the class differences between them, while Mr. Thornton has, in Margaret’s eyes, set himself as an equal to the Hales, or perhaps, due to his wealth, above them.

The difference in Margaret’s attitude to these new people she has met in Milton is emphasized in the next chapters, as Mr. Thornton is invited to tea. While Gaskell writes that Margaret’s interest in the Higginses makes Milton more tolerable to her, she still disdains the company of Mr. Thornton. And it’s this attitude that causes Mr. Thornton’s rather intimidating mother to dislike Margaret before even meeting her.

I have to say, I like the Thorntons. Mr. Thornton is like a working man’s Mr. Darcy, but Mrs. Thornton is by no means a Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She takes a fierce pride in her son, though she might not show it through huge outpourings of affection. The Thorntons are who they are and don’t pretend to be otherwise.

During Mr. Thornton’s visit, he and Margaret get into a brief verbal dispute—taken far more seriously by Margaret—about the differences between the North and the South. As you mentioned in your letter, Northerners, represented here by Mr. Thornton, value hard work and the success that accompanies it. Margaret’s defense of the South seems to be that the poor people of the South are better off than those working for a living in Mr. Thornton’s mills. When she accuses him of making enemies of those who cannot achieve success, he gently corrects her by saying that those who are unsuccessful are not his enemies, but their own, and that if they are unhappy or impoverished, it’s because they were too self-indulgent at a previous point in their lives.

I don’t think either Margaret or Mr. Thornton have it quite right here. There are all too many examples of people who are born poor, live poor and die poor, despite any and all efforts to break the cycle. Salon had a great article this week about how our society, in recent years, has begun to criminalize poverty. 

And Margaret is over-romanticizing the poor people of the South. In “Our Mutual Friend,” we read about the watermen of London whose job was fishing usable things from the river, including bodies. And we’ve both learned about the conditions in which the children of London – chimney sweeps and urchins – lived. Surely these people were as miserable, if not more so, than the workers in Milton.

I’ve gotten super longwinded this time, so I’ll quit here. What are your thoughts on the Thorntons, and Margaret and Mr. Thornton’s argument, which we return to throughout the book?

Yours sincerely,

Mary Beth